The election to the 68-member Himachal Pradesh assembly will be a keenly fought contest between the ruling Congress and the Opposition BJP but it will be watched closely for another reason: The emergence of the next generation of leaders on both sides of the political divide.
Chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who is 83, and the 73-year-old leader of the Opposition, BJP’s Prem Kumar Dhumal, are will eventually make way for the younger leaders and this election will show the way to the generational shift.
“Obviously, the election here is all about next generation,” said RS Chauhan, a professor in Himachal Pradesh University. “But, the real contest will be between Virbhadra and Modi as BJP has not declared its chief ministerial candidate”.
Singh has virtually anointed his 28-year-old son Vikramaditya Singh, who has sought a ticket from his father’s Shimla (rural) constituency, his political heir.
In the last five years, Vikramaditya has been active in the youth wing of the Congress and also has had a say in key decisions of the government.
The seven-time chief minister is working overtime to project his son as the future leader of the Congress in the hill state and is believed to be backing aspirants who are close to his son in their bid to secure party tickets.
Over the last five years he has ruthlessly crushed any possible challenge to his son, leading to infighting in the state unit, sources said.
Himachal is one of the only five states that the Congress rules, as the party has been hit by a string of poll defeats in the last three years.
This time, the state’s poll history favours the BJP. In the last two decades, the Congress and the BJP have alternatively ruled the state with a population of around seven million.
Other than anti-incumbency, Singh is battling corruption cases and the mood in the Congress camp is far from upbeat. The rape and murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl in July added to his troubles.
In the BJP, Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur represents Hamirpur in the Lok Sabha but he has lately showing interest in the state politics as well.
Unlike Singh, Dhumal has resisted projecting his 42-year-old son, who was India’s top cricket official till he and another Board of Control for Cricket India official were sacked by the Supreme Court earlier this year, as his political heir.
But BJP leaders close to Dhumal have been pushing for Thakur and are also aligned against Union health minister JP Nadda, his rival in the state.
Many in the BJP know that Dhumal is unlikely to be the chief minister if the party wins, as he is two years away from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unwritten 75-year age bar for chief ministers and ministers.
So, Thakur and Nadda would be BJP’s campaign faces in an election that would be fought in the name of Modi and his development agenda.
Party insiders, however, have not ruled out a dark horse – like ML Khattar in neighbouring Haryana -- as the next CM if the BJP wins.